Alliance Party urges society to step forward … while it deals with past week’s comments by Anna Lo #AP2014

Today’s Alliance Party conference came just days after Anna Lo’s perfectly valid – though politically thoughtless – comments about her personal views on Irish unification were reported as part of her interview with John Manley in the Irish News.

It was hard to avoid the annual party member get-together being seen through an Anna Lo lens. It was the topic of conversation amongst delegates. I talked to no one who was upset by Anna’s aspiration. No matter whether accused of being soft unionist or closet nationalist, Alliance membership truly spans all views and none on the issue.

However I was surprised at the diversity of interpretations by delegates and elected representatives on the impact of the comments being reported. Many worried about candidates relying on unionist transfers that might now not be so forthcoming. Some countered that in the privacy of the voting booth, the electorate would not punish Alliance as they marked their way down the ballot paper. And others reckoned Alliance got more transfers from nationalists anyway.

While there was unanimity in speaking highly of their European election candidate from the podium, it was clear that some figures within Alliance were privately cross and felt that the unexpected publicity was negative, harmful and avoidable. Castlereagh councillor Geraldine Rice was notable in not joining in the standing ovation at the end of Anna Lo’s speech.

Long term this episode has served to reinforce Alliance’s position that the priority is to build better communities regardless of border aspirations.

By the sounds of the speeches at conference, that East Belfast Westminster election campaign started in earnest today and it looks like we’re going to witness a bloody and brutal battle between sitting MP Naomi Long and DUP challenger Gavin Robinson. Medium term, Anna Lo has not materially harmed the first past the post election on 7 May 2015.

And short term, Alliance historically perform poorly in European elections. While Anna Lo might have been expected to break through the 10% mark for first preferences, the impact on the council elections is much more difficult to calculate or generalise.

[I’ve just spotted Turgon’s alternative analysis of the situation.]

Sian ONeill

What was very obvious at today’s conference was the principled drive and enthusiasm in many of the party’s new local government candidates. Well worth a listen to the early morning session that gave five candidates (only one a sitting councillor) the chance to tell their story and talk about their candidacy: Kate Nicholl, Ross McMullan, Sian O’Neill, Stephen Martin and Nuala McAllister. (Judith Cochrane got a large laugh when she promised one candidate £5 as a thank you for saying nice things about her, and then quipped that it might not be good to talk about fivers on the Gransha Road.)

While some sitting councillors have been worn down by the warfare in council chambers and others want to take stock after intimidation and threats, the fresh candidates seem very keen to take their place in local government and apply Alliance principles to decision making.

Other parties may be quite jealous of the quality of candidates that Alliance have coming forward when they look at their own more troubled candidate selections. Other parties might also be jealous of the gender balance of conference delegates and participants.

Yet well-written and well-delivered speeches in the obscurity of a party conference do not translate into votes. A lot of representatives and constituency staff gushed about their joy in being able to help resolve constituency matters. Much was made of the regular leafleting and doorstep survey work in some constituencies. Any hard work put in over the last five or ten years may be what changes the electoral fortunes of Alliance, rather than how their policies and political scrapes are reported in the media. But the hard work had better have been put in.

Alan McBrideStrong contributions too from ‘older’ Alliance figures. Victims’ campaigner Alan McBride (who isn’t standing for election) outlined some home truths about the local political scene. Paula Bradshaw and Duncan Morrow (with a good quip about “T-BUCkfast”) – both local government candidates – followed with their pitches and analysis of they they were “stepping forward”.

Minister Stephen Farry highlighted the achievements of his Employment and Learning department:

  • secured the long-term freezing of tuition fees for local students at local universities, helping to ensure that higher education is accessible to all, irrespective of ability to pay;
  • facilitated the largest increase in university places for well over a decade, and all of these are in STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics;
  • ahead of schedule in doubling the number of publicly-funded PhD places by 2020;
  • increased research budgets;
  • signed an agreement with the Republic of Ireland on research collaboration;
  • further education colleges were truly integrated (unlike the secondary education sector);
  • potential for FE colleges to more fully link up with secondary-level schools as part of Area Planning and to provide a more rounded Entitlement Framework and 14-19 offer.

I want to create an education and training system that is open and accessible to all – whether new entrants, those already in work or unemployed – open, accessible and understandable, regardless of a persons preferred learning style, income or aspiration.

The implementation of [reviews of Apprenticeships and Youth Training] will radically transform the local skills landscape, upgrade and modernise our system of vocational training, and provide a seamless transition between school and the world of work or higher education. The changes are good for society and good for business.

Our current proposals will result in apprenticeships becoming offered across a much wider range of occupations, and available at much higher skill levels. Already my work has resulted in new apprenticeships being delivered in the finance, advanced manufacturing and ICT sectors – this is just the start of things to come. For the first time apprenticeships will be expanded to include professional and technical occupations within the public sector.

IAnna Lo’d love to see what Anna Lo’s draft speech as the party’s candidate for the European election looked like before her interview with the Irish Times. [Her full speech from Saturday is on the Alliance website.]

I have, of course, always been pro-Europe. It makes economic sense that we belong to a massive common market of 500 million people with an economy worth £730 billion. I will use our position in the EU to secure the best economic future for Northern Ireland and I will ensure that we take full advantage of the available funding to invest in skills and research.

Socially, we have also benefited from the billions of pounds of EU Peace & Reconciliation Funding since the Good Friday Agreement … I will ensure that European money is invested in projects that help us deal with our past, and promote a shared future.

I will support the EU’s push against organised, international crime, especially the disgusting crime of human trafficking. As the founding chair of the All Party Group on Human Trafficking, I have participated in meetings in London and The Hague with the EU Parliamentarian Anti-Trafficking network. I also sit on the All Party Groups dealing with International Development, and with Women, Peace and Security. This work has broadened my experience of international relations, and convinced me of the need for Northern Ireland to have a representative in Europe with a much wider perspective, who can work in Europe and closer to home.

When it comes to the environment, the EU has delivered tangible results in reducing pollution, cleaning up our environment and reducing chemicals in everyday use. Having been Chair of the Environment Committee since 2011, and a member of the All Party Group on European Legislation, I have seen first-hand the benefits that have been achieved through European directives on environmental protection, road safety and waste management. If elected to Europe I will continue to work for further protections for our environment. Just like crime, pollution is not limited by borders, so neither should our response be. Active and enthusiastic membership of the EU will allow us to build on successful measures to tackle climate change, promoting international investment in renewable energy and enforcing rules on environmental standards.

While Europe got a mentions, the focus quickly shifted back to more traditional local political topics.

I joined Alliance because it is the only party which puts people before politics. Like the rest of you and like most people in Northern Ireland I don’t lie awake at night thinking about the border or Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. Nor is that what gets me out of bed in the morning. No. What I care about above anything else, what drives me and my politics, is the everyday need of ordinary people.

It’s the single mother in need of a house. The Ethiopian asylum seeker wanting to see his family. The pensioner who needs access to welfare. And the many vulnerable people in our society. These are the people I work to help. These are the people and the issues I want to tackle.

Employment, housing, welfare, our environment and good relations.

On being called a “nationalists” Anna Lo countered:

I can not and will not be reduced to one label.

Later:

When I decided to get involved in politics I did not join Sinn Fein or the SDLP, parties which had defined themselves as nationalist or for whom the border question is their motivation. No. I joined the Alliance Party because my motivation isn’t a united Ireland, but a united Northern Ireland.

I joined Alliance because my priority was a shared future. It still is and it always will be.

Anna Lo finished:

Don’t call be nationalist. Don’t call be unionist. Call me for everyone. Call me Alliance.

She received another long standing ovation.

anna lo standing ovation

Deputy leader and East Belfast MP Naomi Long spoke for just under half an hour and began by addressing the Haass talks.

Naomi LongShe said that “the outcome on 31st December was not the New Year, new start for which we had hoped and worked”.

From our inception, Alliance’s focus has been building a shared and integrated future for all the people of Northern Ireland. Our test for these negotiations was a simple one – whether the proposals would move us a step closer to that goal or a step back …

We applied three simple tests to each proposal: would they help create a shared understanding of what it is to live in a shared society; would they embed and strengthen the rule of law in our society where other parties seem to feel that it’s a moveable feast, applicable to others but not them; and would they deliver the forward step change required in our political discourse to move our society forward?

Our honest assessment was and remains, that whilst progress was undoubtedly made on some issues, parts of the package fall well short of what is required to deliver that transformational step forward which people desire.

We are realistic enough to know that in 5 party negotiations no party will achieve 100% of what it wants and we were ready and willing to compromise on some fairly significant issues. However, we were not, and are not willing to accept a deal which, far from delivering on our aspirations for a shared future could actually set that cause back.

Talking about On the Runs, Naomi said that the arrangement “[denied] bereaved families access to justice, undermining due process [and] served to further undermine trust and confidence in the peace process”.

People rightly want to know what was agreed, by whom and when. More importantly, we need to know what effect other letters, with their varied assurances given, could have on other future prosecutions. My own Committee in Parliament will be undertaking a wide-ranging inquiry into the issue, in addition to the more narrowly focused judge-led inquiry announced by the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers.

Naomi devoted a considerable section of her speech to remind delegates about her “loyalist inner East Belfast” upbringing – an important shibboleth – and her introduction to the Alliance Party.

Malachi O’Doherty asked me last summer whether people who knew me when I was growing up would have expected me to be the person I am today. My answer? Would they have expected someone with my working-class loyalist roots to ever become the MP for East Belfast and Deputy Leader of the Alliance Party? Honestly, no. But am I the same person with the same principles, convictions and core values drilled into me as a child –then, yes – I am very much the woman my parents reared.

My desire – my passion – was and is to build a united community and a better future for everyone in Northern Ireland; unionist, nationalist, and those for whom the border really doesn’t matter. I wanted to be part of something which could deliver that change so badly needed, and I recognised that, to have any chance of success, that something needed to be bigger than a collection of people who were all just like me. That something needed to reflect the breadth of political and religious views and backgrounds which make up Northern Ireland, but it needed to be united by a common cause of building a future together, not one segregated along orange/green lines.

She also recognised how Anna Lo’s service to the Chinese community in had led to her selection and election to serve the whole community in South Belfast.

I can think of no-one who better represents that new Northern Ireland we want to build – open, welcoming, confident, diverse, internationalist, aspiring and aspirational – than Anna Lo and I hope that after May she will be doing so on behalf of us all in the European Parliament.

Granni TrixieDavid Ford strode up to the stage to the sound of applause and without any music! (Audio of speech in two parts; full speech on Alliance website.)  [That’s a picture of Granni Trixie’s badge to the right!]

Alliance people are certainly stepping forward, but sadly Northern Ireland isn’t taking the big steps forward that we need. We have had far too many examples of failure on the part of the Executive. If it is not plain failure, it’s the claims of steps forward that prove to be nothing but an illusion.

On the Department of Justice:

… we are well on the way to fundamental reform of the prison service, to meet it fit for the 2020s and not the 1970s. We are speeding up justice, concentrating on dealing with young offenders. We are dealing with the legacy of overspending on legal aid, while at the same time protecting access to justice. And we continue to improve community safety and support the essential work of the police.

And when commentators say hat there are more interface structures now than at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, just remember that there are six fewer than when I became Justice Minister.

He stressed Anna Lo’s role in “amending the Marine Bill to prioritise sustainable development” in spite of the Environment Committee and a lack of Executive agreement, as well as highlighting Alliance’s success at Westminster over making public political donations: “an end to the concerns about a culture of brown envelopes”.

Remember the great statement from Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness in the summer of 2012, claiming agreement on a whole raft of issues? It promised a good relations strategy – the so-called CSI strategy – in September 2012, and that strategy never appeared. It promised legislation to establish the Education and Skills Authority, but that never happened.

A Welfare Reform Bill? Never happened, even though it is now costing us several million pounds a month in lost funding from the Treasury. Or what about the new strategy, the inelegantly-called ‘Together: Building a United Community’? A hollow commitment to shared housing – which they didn’t deliver for Girdwood in North Belfast. Promises of ten shared education campuses, not integrated education to make a real difference. I believe that the only real progress has been in the united youth programme, inevitably led by Stephen Farry’s department.

Yes, there have been some achievements. But not the big steps that we needed. Not, for example, a shared sports stadium that could have been talked about around the world if we’d had it in time for the World Police and Fire Games last year. Not the advances in education that would have seen us to tackle the fact that 2 out of every 5 teenagers leaving school do so without basic reading and writing skills. Or half the children in disadvantaged areas start school without the basic skills they need.

Whatever became of the Single Equality Bill; the endless impasse over educational reform; a languages act? The list goes on, taking us up through the collapse last summer of the Maze Long Kesh Peace Centre, and to New Year’s Eve and the failure to resolve the issues around flags, parades and dealing with the Past.

David FordDavid Ford empathised with those who were “bitterly disappointed” with the failure of the Haass talks.

… the Haass process was conceived of by this party – it was we who proposed such a process, and the DUP and Sinn Fein who initially dismissed the idea. Only when pressure came on in the run up to President Obama’s visit for the G8 did they relent, and then sought to present such a process as their own idea.

However, while our plan was for an independent chair to lead a process to deal with all the outstanding issues round a shared future, OFMDFM narrowed it down to just the three issues. Real change will come when we see real constructive progress in all areas, in education, in housing, in youth work and around interfaces …

Northern Ireland needs no more ducking of those issues. We’ve had enough of the “small steps”, the “no steps” and the “backward steps” that have been the hallmark of politics since the Good Friday Agreement.

He moved on to outline “some big steps that we should be taking now … in 2014”.

First of all, we really need to stop talking about the past and start work on dealing with it. We have a moral duty to those who were victims, especially to those who were bereaved, to provide them with justice and, if justice is not possible, to seek ways of providing them with truth, if that helps to provide comfort. The proposals of Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan went a long way towards that. The Historical Investigations Unit, combining the legacy work of the Historical Enquiries Team and the Police Ombudsman, together with the Independent Commission for Information Recovery were in line with the proposals previously made by the Eames-Bradley report and the work of the Victims Commission.

But there is more than a moral obligation, there is also a legal obligation to report to the Council of Ministers about remedying the defects in processing some inquests. The Department of Justice has done preparatory work but it needs the agreement of the Executive to take this forward in legislation. And there is no excuse for further delay.

He had strong words on the lingering paramilitarism in society:

Rather than ducking the issue of flags, murals and other paramilitary symbols, let’s face up to that issue. Let’s call it what it is – sectarian, paramilitary-led marking out of territory. It’s not about culture; it’s not about historical commemoration. As far as I’m concerned, a UVF flag is a UVF flag even if it says 1912 in the corner, and anyone who believes otherwise is being totally naïve.

If you want a perfect example of small steps versus big steps, think of the absurdity of the calls for political parties to remove election posters from the route of the Giro d’Italia, while enormous murals of masked men loom out on gable walls, pointing their guns at everyone who passes, reminding locals and tourists alike who is in charge, who’s welcome, and who should keep their heads down or stay away.

Conference, if we want to send out a better image of Northern Ireland we would be taking down the paintings of gunmen and putting up posters of Anna Lo. (applause) …

It’s time to step forward and take Northern Ireland back from these people. It’s time to show them the kind of community we want for future generations, and not the paramilitaries on the murals. In fact, it’s long beyond time when these organisations simply told their members to go home,  look after their families and their own business, and let Northern Ireland get on with the future. (applause)

Let’s take those big steps. Let’s bring in a system that allows anyone to display legal flags and symbols for a defined period, but then to remove them afterwards. Let’s get agreement between the political parties that any mural with a paramilitary on it should be painted out. Let’s insist that only murals of a genuinely civic nature be allowed, and get rid of the symbols of hatred and division once and for all. (applause)

Let’s have a system for regulating parades that provides a fresh start, both in structures and behaviours. Let’s have an enforceable Code of Conduct that recognises and rewards good behaviour by both paraders and protesters, and punishes bad and unlawful behaviour.

He demanded a reduction in the number of MLAs in time for the 2016 elections:

The necessary legislation has been passed at Westminster: let’s get on with it. Because we do not need 108 MLAs to run Northern Ireland …

These are some of the steps, the big steps, that Northern Ireland needs to take and needs its politicians to lead on. But I doubt if our current crop of politicians is willing to take many of those steps without external pressure, and the people do have the opportunity to apply that pressure four times over the next three years, in a full round of elections.

Because elections can often be how change happens. If you are in any doubt, look at the lengths that other parties go to in order to maintain their electoral base.

Referring to North Belfast, David Ford said “there appear to be no depths to which political parties will not go in order to maintain their traditional core vote”.

What on earth are the elected representatives of the DUP and UUP – supposedly parties of law and order? – doing sitting on a Committee organising an unlawful protest camp, illegally occupying public land – a protest that has cost the taxpayer millions since last July, and diverted stretched police resources away from tackling crime and terrorism? (applause) And that protest deliberately located at a sensitive interface.

I’ll tell you what they’re doing. They are there under the direction of the leadership of their parties, desperately trying to play to the electoral audience and ensure that their votes hold up. The camp has become a platform from which these parties, joined by the PUP, the TUV and even UKIP, try to outdo one another in an electorally-driven competition to make the most outrageous, the most destructive and the most dangerous claims about the threat to the unionist community. All of them baseless, but all of them designed to gain votes.

And whatever happened to the internal DUP investigation into the behaviour of Councillor Ruth Patterson, who has formally admitted to the Court that she posted a grossly offensive message on social media? It looks like that all that happened was that the inquiry determined that the same councillor brings in extremist votes for the DUP. As a result a whole range of DUP figures, including Councillors, MLAs and Executive Ministers jostled to be photographed beside her as she left court.

Even Gavin Robinson, the man anointed by Peter Robinson as the challenger to Naomi Long next year in East Belfast,  who the DUP have worked hard to portray as a moderate during his year as Lord Mayor, joined the cosy huddle. If ever there was any doubt that Naomi Long and Gavin Robinson represent two very different political futures for the people of East Belfast, let those images of him alongside a grinning Ruth Patterson outside Laganside Court nail it once and for all. (long applause)

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt was accused of “joining the race for extremist votes … demanding an end to ‘supergrass trials’ directed at the UVF, and … his desperate attempts to out-Robinson Robinson by pulling out of the post-Haass Party Leaders discussions”.

The only shared future that Mike Nesbitt seems to want is a shared future with Jim Allister.

He said that “electorally-driven fear of one another” was blinding nationalist parties.

Why haven’t the SDLP signed up to supporting the National Crime Agency operating in the devolved sphere? Electoral politics, where the fight against organised crime, human trafficking, child exploitation comes second to competing for votes with Sinn Féin.

Or the manufactured row over the criteria for the selection the Chief Constable, where the two self-styled parties of equality competed with each other to be the ones to stand in the way of changes designed to achieve the very equality that they claim to champion. Or maybe equality only matters when it comes to so-called community background, but not to issues such as disability or gender?

These were reasons why people should vote for Alliance, “because votes either make change happen or they ensure that it doesn’t”.

There is no doubt in my mind that Alliance is the campaign and electoral vehicle to make change happen. We have a growing electoral strength, and a growing influence. That is evident in the increasing attacks on us by others, because they recognise that we are growing and we are threatening the old certainties.

We have real prospects in the European and Council elections, with a body of new people stepping forward as candidates and to help in the campaign. In the lead is Anna Lo, who has taken us from having no Assembly seat in South Belfast to topping the poll over two elections. But it’s not just South Belfast or East Belfast.

Something wider is happening.

David Ford speech 2014 wordleNew party members, new candidates “explaining that they’ve got to the point where they’re not content just to sit at home, shouting at the television news, whether out of anger at the behaviour of other political parties, or in support of Alliance” as well as feedback from opinion polls and “doorsteps as we conduct community surveys and work for our constituents”.

There was a time when people thought this party was all about “agreeing with people”. For some, that was appealing – they wanted Alliance to be the oil in the machine, to have no bigger a vision than that of facilitating agreement between others. For other people that was a big turn-off: they saw us as having no agenda of our own, of being no more than “middle of the road”, or of sitting on the fence.

But this party is not middle of the road and we certainly don’t sit on the fence. We’re not middle of the road between unionism and nationalism. Our job in the Haass process, and all of the talks processes before that, wasn’t to simply agree when others agreed, regardless of the outcome. We never defined ourselves as that, and we never determined our policies on the basis of “splitting the difference” between two extremes. We never determined our position on the basis of where Nationalists and Unionists were sat – we set our own path.

And that path has always been about taking big steps forward. Our longstanding policies in support of power sharing, of real and beneficial North-South co-operation, of the principle of consent – policies that we were advocating decades before others came to recognise them as the only way forward – they weren’t our policies because we thought they would keep everyone happy, but because they were the policies that offered the best opportunity of big steps forward. Likewise our approach to fair employment, to human rights, to integrated education, to the environment; not developed in order to somehow give unionism and nationalism a little of what they wanted, but to lead change for the equal benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland.

Later in the speech, David Ford commented:

Lest anyone out there be confused, let me be very clear. Alliance is not a split-the-difference party, whose vision is limited to whatever might keep both unionists and nationalists happy at any given moment. Too often, that’s what the peace process amounted to. No, we are a party with an entirely different vision for Northern Ireland, our own vision, and we are committed to tirelessly and determinedly pursuing to make that vision a reality.

Some in this society are motivated by hope of a united Ireland, some are motivated by the continuation of the United Kingdom. What unites us all in Alliance is an unequivocal total commitment to building a united community.

So when people ask you on the doorsteps what Alliance is about, tell them this. Alliance is the only party whose primary objective, whose driving force, whose very reason for its existence is a determination to build a shared future for everyone in Northern Ireland.

We aren’t the moderates in Northern Ireland politics – we’re the radicals.

We don’t fit the unionist versus nationalist mould – we were made to smash it and there’s only one way we will do it – by convincing more and more people to step forward and vote Alliance. And that’s what the next 26 months will be about, through the elections to Councils, to Europe, to Westminster and to the Assembly …

In recent months I have heard so often that people in Northern Ireland are more fed up than ever at what passes for politics here. There’s a palpable sense of frustration that politicians haven’t taken the kind of big steps that I have described. Parents who were encouraging their children to build their future here, but who have now lost faith in the ability of politicians to make that attractive.

Business people who are tiring of their efforts to get the message through that division and economic growth don’t mix. Senior police who want to put their resources into tackling crimes against older people, or the exploitation of young people, but are having to redirect them into putting out the fires lit by incendiary political language. Taxpayers who struggle to square politicians’ cries about funding for healthcare with the fact that the same politicians are content to see money being wasted dealing with parades and protests.

These are the people we need to talk to in the weeks and months ahead because their frustrations are our frustrations. Their hopes for this community are our hopes. They want Northern Ireland and its future to be taken back from the extremists; they want politics to be driven by the needs of the many, not the few. They want politicians to take the big steps needed to deliver real change …

We need to convince them that Northern Ireland won’t get the future it needs unless they vote for it; because those who want us to stand still will still come out to vote, and will vote for standstill.

We need to convince people that the only way to take Northern Ireland back from the extremes; the only way to say to the leaders of the other parties that they must take big steps forward; the only way to make the new start to local government, a new start towards a shared future, is to step forward and vote Alliance. To vote for Anna Lo for Europe, and for Alliance candidates for local councils.

Ivan Lewis Eamon GilmoreAfter lunch, conference was addressed by the UK Labour Shadow Secretary of State Ivan Lewis who outlined what he had learned so far in the job, followed by Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore from the Irish Labour party put Northern Ireland’s peace process in context as he reminded delegates: [text of full speech available]

Today’s conference takes place at the end of a week which marks the third anniversary of the Syrian uprising, a conflict which has led to the appalling suffering of so many. This week too we have seen a deepening political crisis in Ukraine.

Eamon Gilmore finished by expanding on former US President Bill Clinton’s recent call in Derry to “Finish the job” by quoting President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural speech (“specific to his beliefs, his time and his place but strikingly appropriate to the challenge we now face”):

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves …

education panelAn education panel with contributions from Noreen Campbell (NI Council for Integrated Education), Tony Gallagher (QUB), Chris Lyttle and Bishop Donal McKeown rounded off the afternoon.

Not a single mention of NI21! No point stirring up a fight with your invisible enemy?

After what someone described as my ‘broody’ post earlier in the week (written before Anna Lo-gate), I’m still not sure how Alliance will overcome the unionist/nationalists Assembly and media narrative to reach voters. No one from the party has knocked my door (that I can remember) in the last couple of years. (And since the councillor from my DEA is not standing again, that seems like poor planning.) Alliance need to move beyond talk about values and principles and find ways to convince disillusioned people that a vote for Alliance will make a difference if they want to voters to change the political landscape.

The next fourteen months will see the end of a chapter for Alliance. New shadow super councils will debate bins, leisure centres and flags … and Alliance’s Castlereagh stronghold will be weakened and lose some of its power to Belfast council. East Belfast will either be retained or lost.

Some MLAs will either decide to seek re-election or will announce their retirement and be replaced in the NI Assembly by co-opted fresh faces. The party could do with a good council election to boost their gene pool of elected representatives. With David Ford now the longest serving Alliance leader, it may soon be time for him to step forward and hand over the leadership to someone new. Succession planning will be key to the party’s future stability.

And talking of stability, the wifi in La Mon Hotel held up brilliantly all day. That’s a first. Still no mobile signal anywhere in the building. But at least the beginnings of a chink in the tin foil that hermetically seals the Gransha Road hotel.

Next week is the turn of the Green Party conference on Saturday 29 March in the Skainos centre.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.